Christmas well-being: Minding your mental health

St Patrick’s Mental Health Services address some common issues

While the Christmas season can be a joyous and celebratory time for many, others may face significant challenges over this period; from dealing with bereavement following the loss of a loved one, to heightened feelings of loneliness and isolation, or indeed, increased time in intense family situations - all of which may impact an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.

As we approach Christmas, mental health practitioners from the multidisciplinary team at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services address some common issues that may arise and how to respond to them in order to protect your wellbeing over the holidays:

Managing anxiety and stress

As we face into another Christmas during a pandemic, what is already a stressful time may become more so. Tips for alleviating Christmas-related stress include:

·         Be realistic: Christmas doesn’t need to be perfect or exactly like previous years. Although your festive plans may look different again this year, you can find new ways to celebrate.

·         Take a breather: If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with the demands of the season, spending 15 minutes alone may recharge your batteries so that you can handle everything on your to-do list. Some options include reading a book, listening to music or having a relaxing bath.

Coping with loneliness

Since the onset of the pandemic, the issues of loneliness and isolation have become more prevalent, with figures from the Samaritans in 2020 showing that 38% of calls to their support lines mentioned concerns around loneliness over the festive season– an increase of 5% since 2019.

If you are managing feelings of loneliness over the season, some recommendations include:

·         Have a plan for the day: If you know your feelings of loneliness may increase over the festive period, try to keep somewhat busy so that you are no left to dwell on your thoughts. Take part in activities that you enjoy and make you feel good such as volunteering or planning to visit a neighbour.

·         Practise self-compassion: It’s okay to feel lonely. Allow yourself some time to sit with your emotions, and remember that you are not alone in loneliness; lots of people can feel this way from time to time.

Dealing with a bereavement or grief

Christmas can be a painful time for many people who have lost loved ones, whether that loss has been this year or many years ago.

If you are grieving, give yourself space both to not be okay and also to smile and have some fun. It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be joyful. Painful feelings are part of the grieving process and it’s important to recognise these feelings.

It can also be useful to consider devising a ‘survival kit’, which starts with checking in with family about how they are feeling, having a to-do wish list for the family, and also an individual wish list.

Continuing some family traditions or creating new ones can also be helpful. Some people  may like to visit a grave or special place to give time to remember around this time of year.

Managing family dynamics

Christmas is also a time of great excess; we do more, eat more, drink more and see our family more than at any other time, which can lead to increased tensions and familial pressures. Tactics to manage family dynamics could include:

·         Choosing your battles: Choose what to give your energy and time to, and recognise what doesn’t serve you

·         Making your needs and wants clear: Don’t expect others to know what you need or how you are feeling; let them know so that you can manage these feelings together.

Keeping a healthy approach to food and alcohol

For those who experience difficulties in relation to food or alcohol, Christmas can be a particularly trying period, but it is important to protect your recovery during the festive season. Protection strategies could include:

·         Making a plan and sticking to it: Be clear in your own mind about what it is that you want to do and consider is there anything in relation to food or alcohol that could make you anxious or leave you vulnerable? It’s okay to say no to things that you feel may impact your recovery, and you do not need to feel guilty for prioritising your recovery. During this period, try to ensure that you are following your routines and structures as much as possible. Know what tools work for you and use them every day. Tools may include meditation, journaling or going for daily walks.

Strategies to protect wellbeing

Speaking about ways to foster positive mental health over Christmas, Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services said: “This Christmas, we are encouraging everyone to prioritise their mental health by employing strategies to protect wellbeing in the face of the common challenges that present during this time of year, and the additional challenges presented by COVID-19.

“If you are finding the festive period difficult to manage, speak to a trusted friend or family member and let them know how you’re feeling. By reaching out to someone, this can ease any underlying pressure to behave in a certain way or feel a certain way just because it’s Christmas. It is also important to remember that, no matter the time of year, support is always available; whether that means talking to your GP, calling a phone line, confiding in a family member or seeking other supports. Be confident about your own resilience, remembering that seeking help and being honest about how we feel is often the doorway to tapping into our inner resilience.”